Back to basics
WHAT IS PRESENTATION?
I think it is useful to start with an analysis of what we usually mean by presentation to look for some essential elements that will help us improve performance. What is going on when someone is ‘presenting’? What are they doing? Offering, showing, exhibiting, giving, bringing (to the attention of), introducing? All these, and more. Certain activities surely involve presentation and/or associated skills: making a case in the courtroom or debating chamber for instance; social etiquette – introducing someone; teaching; acting and comedy; even giving an award in recognition of achievement. What then do these have in common? There are three things which are relevant to the business at hand:
- A form or formality
- People – the public
- The transfer of something to one or many others
What is useful about such an analysis is that we can instantly recognise these concepts in TV and radio presentation. When you present on the media you offer, you show, you bring, you give and introduce. The form is the medium, the public are involved, and it is a transfer of information from presenter to the audience.
Who uses presentation skills?
Almost everyone. Presentation skills are surely a necessary part of human communication and language. This would include therefore conversation. To speak is to present. And it is interesting to note before we move away from this reductive analysis, that conversation is the model I use for trainee presenters and their guests to encourage them to adopt the same register to engage their audience: I ask them to imagine they are having a conversation with their viewers and listeners. In so doing they are employing universally recognisable skills most of us started learning at our mother’s knee.
Jumping ahead to professional uses of these skills, beyond chatting on the phone, telling jokes, even ‘doing presentations’ at work or college, let us look at the defining elements useful for media presentation. Who, apart from TV and radio presenters and their guests, learn and use these skills?
Comics, actors, teachers, politicians, barristers, salespeople and journalists to name a few, surely use them.
I often ask new trainees whether they have previous experience of presentation and I would include the work of any of these worthy professionals as valid and useful experience. However most of the professional activities of these people involve something in addition to merely putting over information. So while it is useful for a presenter to be able to persuade, amuse, entertain, sell and teach, and these people make able on-screen/on-mic performers, these skills are not necessary ones for media presentation.
I say this to point out the problems some of these professionals face as media presenters. Actors, for instance, ask me whom I want them to be when they read the news, or promote a programme. I usually answer, ‘how about yourself?’ This can be met with a frown.
I knew a voice-over artist used to making commercials who when he read the news sounded as if he were selling something. Salespeople may do the same, although if they’re presenting on a shopping channel their skills may come in handy. A comic may feel the need to find something funny to say when it is not appropriate; a politician to win over his or her audience.
They are all doing something additional, which in media presentation is not only unnecessary it may be counter-productive. So when I ask them to merely put over the information, they realise that there is a skill involved which they may have taken for granted.
It is perhaps worth pointing out here that a discussion of presentation, like a discussion of comedy, will not on its own help you be a better practitioner of it. There are no degrees in it even if (happily) there are parts of media courses which include presentation and voice training. But in searching for definition perhaps we can learn something about what it is not and how we should handle the ambition to become a better presenter and media performer.
There is a useful part of presentation which is simply presence: being there; occupying space; inhabiting it; belonging in front of the mic or camera. Your audience will react to you before you have told them anything. On television especially when they can size up your appearance, but even on radio in the short time you take to say: ‘hello, I’m Alec Sabin, welcome to this week’s programme…etc’ the audience will have had some thoughts about you. Focussing on this can put you at a disadvantage since you will feel judged. But it is important to acknowledge it. Keep with your material (script or ad-lib) in the present moment. This will help you to think on your feet and not allow distractions to compromise your concentration.
The bad side of ‘presence’ is vacuity: that you are present, the lights are on, but no one is home. Actors acknowledge this. Sometimes they refer to ‘sending the beard on’ or ‘phoning it in’ – derogatory terms denoting lack of involvement in their work. This assumes the audience will ‘get’ the character through facial hair alone, or the text without real commitment from the actor, their vacuous presence being all that is necessary.
FOCUS OF ATTENTION
We will see later what the qualities of good presentation are, but we can already define three necessary elements of any presentation:
- The presenter
- The presented to – the audience
- That which is presented – the material
It is as well to define the essentials but I offer them also to highlight something important: focus of attention. The presenter can choose to focus on any of these three, and the audience on two of them.
However it is important that the presenter focus on only two of them: the audience and the material. The audience should focus on only one of them: the material. This cuts out the presenter. Let’s see what this means in practice.
It is perverse perhaps to suggest that the presenter should be ignored, in favour of the audience and material; but the presenter’s expertise will paradoxically be evident and appreciated all the more for the lack of distraction by unnecessary signature.
Such is the audience’s lack of the need to be reminded of the existence of the presenter, that I suggest the best presentation often happens when none seems to be going on. This then can concentrate the audience’s mind on what is being presented to them. If as a listener you are absorbed in something on the radio in your car, perhaps you only become aware of listening to the radio at all when you reach your destination and need to switch off and leave the car. Likewise, you only become aware of the radio functioning when it needs tuning (rarer now with automatic tuning in the car). You also may only become aware of the presenter if and when he or she makes a mistake.
In that chain of communication in radio presentation –
from ideas/information – in the presenter’s brain – to voice – to microphone in a radio studio – through control room and transmission – to aerial – to receiver – to the ear – and brain of the listener –
ideally the listener should be aware of nothing other than the ideas or information being imparted: the material, and not all those other links between. It should be a purely intellectual process: a flow of ideas from the presenter’s brain to the listener’s. And awareness of the presenter should be as negligible as awareness of the aerial on the top of the car, although both are necessary to the reception of those ideas and information.
The presented to – the audience
Although the audience does not need to focus on the presenter, the inverse is not true. In order for the audience to focus on your material you will need to engage them. And before engagement comes awareness. Even though they are not visible to you, you can effect awareness of them by developing a kind of imaginary personal antenna which will tell you when you are getting your material across to them and, more importantly, when you are not doing that. This will enable you to fine tune your skills in the process of becoming a good communicator. If your audience were visible you could see them listening to you or not.
In some cases the presenter/audience relationship should be like a one-on-one conversation, where there is interaction. Obviously there is a leap of imagination involved here, but it is an important one. Think about the situation when you are talking to someone who has stopped listening to you – their eyes have glazed over. How does that feel? What do you do about it? Do you carry on? Do you jolt them into listening to you? You need to reconnect with them for the process of communication to continue. You can have the same feeling in broadcasting. There will be times when you feel you have lost your audience. How do you get them back?
Some presenters and broadcasters like to imagine they are talking to one particular person whom they have in their mind’s eye. It is often someone they know – a friend or relative. There are advantages and disadvantages to this technique, but it highlights the need that many professionals feel about engaging their audience which they rightly recognise to be of utmost importance. There will be more on this technique in Chapter 4.
That which is presented – the material
At Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park in London, I once saw someone on a soap box saying to his admittedly rather small but nevertheless hardy audience that he had nothing to say to them, that he didn’t know why they were standing there listening to him and wouldn’t they be better off going to listen to someone else. They stayed, though, and he kept on talking, saying more or less the same thing. And I was one of those listeners fascinated by this existentially interesting situation: the speaker who denies his function and puts the listeners into a questionable role too: how can we be an audience if the speaker doesn’t have anything to say to us?
The audience needs to feel that the material is important. If as an audience member I feel that the subject matters to you as the presenter – better, that you are passionate about it, then I will be attracted to what you have to say. When presenters (on radio) say – ‘Don’t touch that dial!’ or, (on TV or radio coming up to the commercial break) – ‘Don’t go away!’ – they try to persuade the audience to stick with them because there is something important coming up that concerns them, that will be of interest to them, that they will not want to miss: something that connects the audience to the material. The material matters.
Like the audience, the material and your relationship to it merits a chapter to itself in this book. If there is one slogan that I use over and over again to persuade trainee broadcasters to focus it is:
‘It’s not how you say it, it’s what you say.’